A year before Covid-19 arrived in South Africa, Christopher Holton left his corporate job in the petrochemical industry to become a strategy and leadership consultant to small and medium enterprises.
It was the first quarter of 2019, and having just completed a two-year postgraduate diploma in leadership through the University of KwaZulu-Natal, he decided to pursue his passion. “With what I’ve learned in the course and my business and organisational finance experience, I wanted to help small businesses grow by developing their leadership and giving them the financial analysis and advice to take them to the next level. Watching multiple entrepreneurs grow is far more satisfying than being an employee in one company.”
Holton consults in two main areas, namely assisting small start-ups to put the necessary governance and financial systems in place, and entering into fixed-term contracts with larger, more established businesses to steady the ship in the wake of a strategic person’s departure. The latter typically lasts three to four months, enough time for the business to find the right replacement. “I am not a commercial or sales person,” emphasises Holton. “In the case of new ventures, I rein in the racehorse by putting in place the controls, governance and oversight that enable sustainability. My job is to be a sounding board for people who know what they want but aren’t sure how to achieve it.”
Holton describes himself as “old school” in his preference for face-to-face interaction with his clients, but Covid-19 forced a change. The Sukuma Fund survival grant he received enabled him to establish a professional home office from where he could continue supporting his clients without making life impossible for his family members. He also used some of the money to continue paying the salaries of the family’s gardener and domestic worker.
“The money was a lifeline,” he says, “and emotionally it was hugely significant to me that somebody out there was willing to help me without any strings attached. That kind of giving back to the country where you made your fortune resonates with my values.” Assessing the current status of his clients, Holton reports a mixed bag: “ The IT guys are doing okay, but the manufacturers have taken a knock and need to rebuild.”
In terms of his own business, Holton regards these as interesting times to be a consultant. On the one hand, “people see us as sin taxes”, an expense to be cut when times are tough; on the other, he gets to experience a change in business thinking first hand. “It is exciting for me that companies are looking at their vision and mission statements and how they translate into strategies and action plans. They are rethinking their approach to strategy, getting rid of nice-to-haves and contracting in the short term in the interest of long-term success.” He also sees serious consideration being given to increased local sourcing of goods and equipment, in view of how Covid-19 has disrupted international supply lines.
Holton is also exploring opportunities to expand his own portfolio of services by, for instance, offering bookkeeping services for small businesses who do not need a full-time resource. “While it’s still tough, there is also plenty of opportunity in these times. We are going to see a change in how businesses work, in social aspects coming to the fore and the need to build a new management style to handle it.”